November 5, 2010

... The Beauty of Complexity

        Sometimes I'm amazed by the beauty of a few perfect marks… but other times I find beauty in the breathtaking complexity of an image.  I'm awed by the skill it takes to create such a block, by the way I keep noticing more and more details the longer I look, by the gorgeous visual richness.  Periodically I keep pushing myself to attempt greater and greater complexity in my block prints (alternating with simpler images) and that challenge takes two forms.  One is the technical challenge of carving all those details, and the other is the design challenge of avoiding an overwhelming fussiness in which all marks assume equal importance and the forest gets lost in the trees.
        One of the more successful complicated blocks I've done is this picture of zebras at a water hole.  The concept came from a photograph I saw in a book about zebras, and I loved the idea of the stripes reflected in the water.  To balance the crazy busyness of the stripes, however, I left the background completely plain.  After all, I'm not an incredible-detail kind of artist any more than I'm a few-simple-strokes artist.  I'm really just a middling sort, but I can certainly appreciate the incredible details that others achieve.
        Obviously M.C. Escher belongs in this category, so let me just refer you to my entire entry on his block prints, and then give space to some other artists. 

        For some mind-blowing block prints you need look no farther than the Society of Wood Engravers.  Check out their web site for a gallery of incredible images, as well as information on the materials, tools, and techniques used for wood engraving.
        If it's complexity you're looking for, take this piece by Sue Scullard.  Just look at all that crazy detail!  Is your mouth hanging open?  It should be. 
        Or compare with this one by Rie Kawauchi, who uses the busyness of her details to create a complex graphic pattern.  (Notice the odd shape of the piece?  Remember that wood engravings are done on end grain.  I'm guessing that the shape of this piece was determined by the cross section of the tree from which the block was cut.)
        Finally here's a more traditional wood engraving by Simon Brett (one of the  modern masters of the form.)  To me it's more reminiscent of the engravings that were done to enable reproduction of paintings and other images for publication before the invention of photographic processes.  Its level of detail is so fine that it almost ceases to retain the look of carving or the contrast of black and white that I love in block printing, so there are other pieces that I prefer.  Nevertheless, it's amazing to see what complexity the medium is capable of.
        Woodcuts and rubber block prints simply can't take and hold the level of detail demonstrated in these wood engravings, so for myself I'm unlikely ever even to attempt it, let alone to get to the point where I can achieve it.  But I can certainly admire it!

[Pictures: Three at the Water Hole, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998;
St. Peter, Rome, wood engraving by M.C. Escher, 1935;
Rose Garden, Sissinghurst, wood engraving by Sue Scullard;
Troyes, wood engraving by Rie Kawauchi;
Brucefield Mains, wood engraving by Simon Brett, 2002.]


Nan said...

OK, mouth agape. But what is the difference in the process between carving a wood block and engraving a wood block? Tools? Expertise? Size? They both print the raised surfaces, right? (Extent of ignorance of printing clearly showing.)

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Yes, wood engraving (unlike intaglio copper engraving) is a relief print, printing the raised surface. The difference from other relief prints is that wood engraving is done on end grain so that it's essentially just a very smooth hard surface that can be carved with very fine, sharp tools. Box is considered the best wood and is increasingly hard to come by, especially in large blocks, which usually have to be pieced together from smaller segments, so there is a synthetic called resingrave that some "wood" engravers use. Wood engravings aren't *necessarily* more detailed than woodcuts or linoleum or rubber blocks, but they *can* be because of the hardness and smoothness of the medium. I've never done any engraving, since the tools and blocks are more expensive and harder to come by, but I'd love to try it some day! But of course all the samples I've shown here aren't just a matter of the wood block but demonstrate total expertise, too.

Martha Knox said...

Great post! I really enjoyed reading and viewing the works.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for checking out my blog, Martha, and thanks for leaving a comment!

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